The scene that Craig Finn sets on “Spices,” the second track on The Hold Steady’s eighth album, Open Door Policy, feels bittersweet in a way he couldn’t have intended. Finn’s narrator receives a text from an on-again, off-again flame and decides to give it another go. “But she makes it clear / That she’s done with all that other stuff,” he sings, hinting at the kind of temptations that, say, Holly struggled with in the past. They go back to all their old haunts, meeting on the corner by the Central Smoke & Gift and drinking vanilla vodkas in diet Dr. Peppers: “All the bartenders were strangling their shakers / It was springtime in the sweet part of the city,” Finn sings. It’s a classic Hold Steady narrative, full of details that put you a few barstools away from the action, and you want to see things work out for these characters despite all the signs that they might not. It could even be happening in one of the boozy venues in which the Hold Steady made their name as America’s Best Bar Band. That’s the kind of place that we should be hearing “Spices,” and Open Door Policy, in.
Open Door Policy was written and mostly recorded before the COVID-19 pandemic, and as with many other albums that have been released in the last year, hearing these tales of getting shitfaced and partying and vowing to make better decisions will make you long for the day that it’s safe for you to do the same. (At least, safe to do so without contracting a respiratory illness.) But the record also follows a trying period in The Hold Steady’s history—one from which it was unclear if the band would fully recover. After five years of touring and recording that yielded one of the strongest four-album runs of the 2000s, the party ended abruptly when guitarist Tad Kubler was hospitalized twice for pancreatitis; keyboardist Franz Nicolay left the band a few months later. The band sounded tired and disconnected on the two LPs that followed, 2010’s Heaven Is Wherever and 2014’s Teeth Dreams, and Finn seemed to be more interested in writing songs for his budding solo career. So when The Hold Steady returned, Nicolay back on board, five years later with Thrashing Thru the Passion, the comeback felt all the more triumphant: Finn, Kubler and company stopped raging against aging, instead taking their time on a set of songs that played to their strengths.
If there was anything to complain about with Thrashing Thru the Passion, it’s that it felt more like a collection of songs than a cohesive album, with five of its ten tracks being released as singles almost a year before the record was even announced. Open Door Policy, in contrast, plays like a series of thematically linked short stories. The tales don’t all come together the way they do in Separation Sunday, but if it weren’t for specific references to Scranton and Tucson and Independence, Missouri, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the events of these songs would be unfolding over several days and several miles Minneapolis: Finn’s narrator on opener “The Feelers” could very well be one of the dudes who was sitting on the roof deck in “The Prior Procedure,” and it’s quite possible that he was at the poker party the night before on “Spices.”
Even if you miss the geographic specificity of songs like “Hornets! Hornets!” and “Party Pit,” Finn’s ability to distill a character’s essence down to a matter of lines is unrivaled. We’re never told the real name of the drug-dealing Maestro on “The Feelers,” but we can tell that he’s the kind of malevolent presence who likes to party and start fights at parties; his father made a fortune “from being ruthless but polite,” and judging from the pistol on the Maestro’s desk, it’s safe to assume he’s quicker to ruthlessness than his old man. On the Springsteen-meets-Swift bonus track “Parade Days,” Finn tells of a “new queen of the lakes,” whose parents were the kind of neighbors who would bring “a dish when somebody died,” who now works “a half-life in housewares” at a downtown mall. But it’s the final verse on “The Prior Procedure” that scans as Finn’s most empathetic salute to working-class heroes, as well as an indictment of late capitalism:
How a new billionaire
In an Underdog shirt
Built a statue to honor
His ways and his words
While the rest of these martyrs
Got marched off to work through the weekend
It wouldn’t be right to call Open Door Policy the Hold Steady’s “political” record—though Finn has never been one for “Born in the U.S.A.”-style sloganeering, he’s always been attuned to the circumstances that shaped his characters, the things they drink to forget. But Open Door Policy really pushes these things to the forefront, making for songs that are a lot more concerned with surviving than partying. Struggling artists are a motif on the album: the burned-out software salesman on “Heaven Covenant” shares a moment (and almost $40) with a guitarist with a broken string, while the singer Magdalena runs away with on “Me & Magdalena” cancels a tour and is never heard from again (“There were rumors that he died / Someone made a joke about the camel in his eyes / I guess the needle was implied”). And then there’s the sweeping, stunning “Lanyards,” which ties together the sad stories of two people on the brink—a woman trying to make it in showbiz, and one of her young fans—that both end in trips to the hospital.
Open Door Policy is the Hold Steady’s best-sounding and most dynamic album. Teeth Dreams suffered mightily from its muddy, over-compressed production, but even on Separation Sunday and Boys and Girls in America, Finn and Kubler’s guitars sounded hard and in-your-face. On Open Door Policy, there’s more breathing room in the mix and more opportunities to slow down and take it all in. On songs like “Lanyards” and “Me & Magdalena,” Nicolay’s piano lays the instrumental foundation, putting Kubler and fellow guitarist Steve Selvidge in a position where they augment his melodies rather than overpowering them. As a band, the Hold Steady sounds the best it’s ever been, and while it’s great to hear them firing on all cylinders on “Family Farm,” it’s as if they know that they don’t have to keep up that pace for the length of an entire song.
“I no longer see the romance in these ghosts,” Finn confesses at the end of “Unpleasant Breakfast.” It’s something of a startling admission, seeing as he’s spent more than two decades romanticizing outcasts and hoodrats—some of whom, it could be assumed, couldn’t keep up their lifestyles over the years. But that’s the thing about the inhabitants of the Hold Steady’s musical universe: These characters know the odds are stacked against them, but they’re willing to be beaten by them again and again if it means beating them just once. That’s the kind of girl who Finn sings about on the track, snapping a picture of her as she wades into the water at South Ocean View, “defiant and undamaged.” A year later, she says she’s a shell of who she used to be. But she’s still here, alive and trying.
Label: Positive Jams/Thirty Tigers
Jacob Nierenberg is a man of contrasts: a Pacific Northwesterner who carries an umbrella, a pacifist who enjoys the John Wick movies, an idealist who follows politics. Scarcely a day goes by that he doesn't talk with his best friend (and fellow Treble contributor) Tyler Dunston, the Jim Morrison to his Bernie Sanders.